Red Bull’s gutsy decision to pit both their drivers during the Safety Car period put Daniel Ricciardo in position to win the race. But at the start of the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix, Scuderia Ferrari was favourite to score another victory after the 1-2 finish in qualifying. There were three key moments which the Maranello team did not manage in the best possible way, that in the end compromised Ferrari’s hopes of making it three wins in a row at the beginning of the 2018 Formula 1 season:
1. Sebastian Vettel started the race in pole-position, while Kimi Raikkonen was also on the front row. However, the two Scuderia Ferrari drivers did not seem to work together in order to prevent any overtaking attempts from behind. In fact, Sebastian Vettel’s maneuver did not make things easy for the Finnish driver, who was forced to break and lose positions, meaning that the Maranello team lost track position in the fight with Mercedes and Red Bull.
2. Valtteri Bottas into the lead – Sebastian Vettel held a seemingly comfortable lead of nearly three-and-a-half seconds over the Mercedes driver 18 laps into the race. Ferrari believed this was enough that Vettel could pit on the lap after Bottas and come out ahead: “We were quite sure we would have come out in front, but we didn’t.” – Seb admitted afterwards. So how did Mercedes manage it?
3. It wasn’t won on the in-laps. Bottas and Vettel both covered the final sectors in 47.5 seconds as they headed into the pits. Bottas made up much of the time with remarkable speed after switching from ultra-softs to mediums – tyres which are three stages harder. On his out-lap Bottas set the fastest times of the race to that point through sectors two and three. A 28.597s and 41.749s slashed around 2.5s out of Vettel’s lead. Mercedes were quicker in the pits, too. Bottas had the fastest complete stop of the race, almost a full second quicker than Vettel. Ferrari, in the wake of their disastrous pit stop in Bahrain, and with an enforced change in pit crew following the injury to Francesco Cigarini, seem to have been leaving a greater margin for safety.
But the stop was the smaller part of the equation. Mercedes’ stunning pace on new medium tyres was what made the difference. After the race Bottas indicated Mercedes knew exactly how potent their car would be when he was asked if he was surprised to have taken the lead from Sebastian.
3. Had Ferrari pitted Kimi along with the Red Bulls he probably would have won the race. However, the Finnish driver did not have any soft tyres available, which also pinpoints a strategic error in tyre management from the Maranello team. While it is true that the team are still trying to understand the behaviour of the tyres in different track conditions, Scuderia Ferrari could have tried to go for two very fast stins with the ultrasoft tyre, giving Kimi a 2-3 second per lap advantage in the final stages of the race.